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Gov. Christie’s School Reform Toolkit, Hammering Away at Teachers’ Salaries

The administration’s latest legislative proposal would award the state veto powers over local labor contracts.

Call it the big hammer in Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed toolkit for schools, the one piece of his package of financial reforms that could directly affect the biggest piece of district spending: teacher salaries.

But if its first hearing before the legislature yesterday was any indication, the proposal to give the state veto powers over local labor contracts could prove a very hard sell, with supporters and opponents lining up along mostly predictable lines.

The bill sponsored by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos Jr. (R-Monmouth) focuses new attention on the mostly anonymous executive county superintendents, the 21 county arms of the state Department of Education.

Tremendous New Powers

The bill would give these officials, all appointed by the governor, vast new powers to oversee school operations and budgets, adding another chapter to New Jersey’s perennial debate over its decentralized system of nearly 600 school districts.

But the most significant measure within the bill enters new territory, allowing the county superintendents to review and veto local labor contracts once negotiated, a direct hit at the teacher and administrator pacts that dictate the bulk of local school spending.

The county superintendents would be able to hold contracted compensation -- salaries and benefits -- to within the new property tax cap of 2 percent, as well as set work-rule requirements on number of days and hours teachers spend with students. It would also prohibit any contracts that prevent subcontracting of services.

The bill is part of Christie’s promised package of more than 30 proposals to provide schools and municipalities a toolkit to address rising personnel costs and other expenses. The governor is expected to announce today his proposals to revamp pension and health care benefits for public employees.

In the first full legislative day since the summer recess, the labor contract proposal yesterday drew a mostly cool reception.

A Vocal Supporter

Its most outspoken supporter yesterday at the Senate budget and appropriations committee was not Kyrillos -- who did not attend this part of the hearing -- but a Democrat, state Sen. Robert Smith (D-Middlesex).

Smith mostly focused on other provisions that would also permit county superintendents to dictate sharing of services and ultimately school consolidations, although the latter would require approval by local referendums.

“If we really want to deal with property taxes in New Jersey, you have to deal with the fact we have 600 districts,” Smith said. “It’s absolute insanity.”

Yet after Smith spoke, the bill was greeted by a parade of lobbyists and advocates in opposition. First up were leaders of the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association.

“It would be virtually unchecked powers to manage the finance of the every district in the state,” said Vince Giordano, the NJEA’s executive director. “It is probably the most serious blow anyone could strike to the collective bargaining process.”

At War with the Administration

Giordano, whose union has been in open battle with Christie for much of his tenure, said giving the county superintendents these powers would be “tantamount to giving it to the governor."

“I do believe we elected a governor in November, not an emperor,” he said.

But it was not just the unions in opposition. Lobbyists for the school boards association also spoke against the measure, as did other advocates for administrators.

Barbara Horl of the New Jersey School Board Association said that contract settlements have come in under 2 percent for the first time in recent memory, well down from averages exceeding 4 percent for the last several years.

“We are already accomplishing the legislative goal without the extra review,” she said. “And we’re just at the beginning.”

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said afterward that yesterday’s hearing was only a first discussion, and no vote was taken, but he conceded the bill would have a tough path to approval at this point.

“You have both the employers and the employees against it,” Sarlo said. “And also the principals who will have to administer it.”

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